A touching Father’s Day profile from down in Georgia

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It’s Father’s Day (and I need a nap after the special lunch my wife made), so I’m going to forgo a normal GetReligion critique.

Instead, I’m going to point you toward a touching feature about a father of 10, via the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer in Georgia:

Psalm 127 says a man with many children is like having a quiver full of arrows.

The Rev. Andy Merritt and his wife, Kathy, have taken that passage seriously — producing 10 children in their 40 years of marriage.

“The reason we wanted to have a large family is that we believe each of those arrows has a destiny and a target to hit,” said Merritt, reflecting on his life as a father. “We felt that probably the greatest way to impact the world we live in would be to raise children that would come to know Christ. We really viewed it as an opportunity to express our Christian faith and even advance it through the lives of our children.”

Merritt, 62, is senior pastor of Edgewood Baptist Church on Forrest Road, where he’s served for 37 years. He and his wife have three sons and seven daughters, from ages 39 to 19. All but the two youngest are now living on their own, and many have started their own families. Two of their sons are pastors, and most of the other children are in some form of ministry.

So far, the children have blessed the Merritts with 18 grandchildren.

Merritt said he’s not the perfect father, but he has relied on God for guidance.

“I came out of a broken home and always believed I came into marriage and family with a great deficiency,” he said. “I think I learned more from my errors than anything I’ve done right. It’s only been by God’s grace.”

Keep reading, and the reporter describes the parents’ faith journey and the inspiration behind their children’s names.

Then readers learn about Charissa, the Merritts’ youngest child:

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#SBC14: Race, sex, Muslims make Baptist headlines

Race. Sex. Muslims.

As Southern Baptists convene their annual meeting in Baltimore — home of editor tmatt — all could make headlines. In fact, they already are.

Sunday’s front page of the New Orleans Times-Picayune featured a 2,500-word farewell profile on the Rev. Fred Luter Jr., who is wrapping up two years as the convention’s first black president.

A big chunk of the top:

A few blocks from where he grew up in New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward, in a wet and rising wind, Rev. Fred Luter Jr. is pacing behind a microphone. In his last weeks as president of the Southern Baptist Convention, the leader of the United States’ largest protestant denomination is here in an official capacity, to speak at the dedication of a non-profit health clinic. But the event also marks a homecoming of sorts.

Here are the streets Luter walked as a boy. He can point to where his mother went to church, and to the barber shop where he honed a gift for speaking. Those buildings are now boarded and the streets marred by blighted homes, by empty lots — evidence of deep racial inequalities that Luter has seen as his life’s work to resolve.

The first African-American president of the Baptist branch that broke from the church to retain its pro-slavery stance, Luter has served a whirlwind two years. His term ends Wednesday. As president, Luter has traveled the globe, preaching in mud huts in Uganda, in the freezing February of an Alaskan winter. He speaks of his sympathy for human suffering, a sympathy that extends outward in every direction, to everyone he meets.

But he has retained a special sympathy for the problems facing his hometown. For the April 28 dedication of Baptist Community Health Services Inc., he spoke not of what he has accomplished abroad but of what he would like to do here. Embarking on a biblical anecdote of those who once doubted Christ, he said skeptics, upon hearing that Jesus was born in the backwaters of Nazareth, asked, “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?”

Fred Luter Jr. in the Lower 9th WardThe first African-American president of the Southern Baptist Convention, pastor Fred Luter grew up blocks away from a new health clinic in the Lower 9th ward. He speaks at its opening ceremony.

“Well, ladies and gentlemen,” Luter said, his voice gaining vim, “Washington D.C. one time asked. Baton Rouge one time asked. All over Louisiana, the question was one time asked: ‘Can any good thing come out of the Lower 9th ward? Can any good thing come out of Tennessee and St. Claude streets? Can any thing come out of the Lower 9th Ward area?’”

“Yes, yes, yes,” he said. “We know there are good things to come. We’ve seen it ourselves.”

Luter standing there was the only answer that was needed. His life could answer the question he asked.

It’s an interesting, insightful story by a newspaper to which I haven’t paid much attention since Godbeat veteran Bruce Nolan’s layoff in 2012.

As Southern Baptists prepared to choose Luter’s successor, The Associated Press’ Monday advance on the annual meeting touted the possible election of a Korean-American:

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Which religions favor separation of church and state?

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionqanda/2014/06/which-religions-favor-separation-of-church-and-state/

LISA ASKS:

Do all religions teach separation between church and state? If not, which ones and why?

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

Separation of church and state (the usual phrasing though “of religion and state” is often more accurate) is an achievement of modern politics and by no means a universal one. Among world religions, after long struggle Christianity helped create the concept and broadly favors aspects of it in most countries. Islam stands at the opposite end of the spectrum, often considering it alien if not abhorrent. Interactions between religions and governments through history are too complex to summarize but The Guy will sketch some high points.

America’s latest church-and-state fuss (analyzed May 10 in “Religion Q and A”) involves Supreme Court allowance of prayers before local council meetings, even in a town where most of them were explicitly Christian. Americans United for Separation of Church and State is alarmed, asking in a headline whether this ruling is “putting the country on the path to church-state union.”

Well, no. There’s a vast gap between brief civic invocations and any “union,” and America to a remarkable degree has avoided situations common elsewhere, for instance:

Many European states, whether in Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant countries, subsidize churches or Christian education. Clergy are tax-supported civil servants in such religiously diverse lands as Egypt (Muslim), Germany (Protestant and Catholic), Greece (Orthodox) and Israel (Jewish). Britain’s prime minister chooses all bishops for pro forma appointment by the monarch who heads the Church of England, and 26 bishops sit in parliament’s upper house. India’s national government is officially non-sectarian but at the state level Hindus use anti-conversion laws to hobble competing faiths. Clergy are sometimes heads of state, including two who were revered as divinities not long ago, Tibetan Buddhism’s Dalai Lama and Japan’s Shinto emperor.

With Islam, the founding Prophet Muhammad was a political and military ruler and his faith has been closely intertwined with civil affairs ever since. Although the Quran says “there is no compulsion in religion” (2:256), some Muslim nations force religious law (Sharia) upon non-Muslims and in extreme cases threaten converts to other faiths with the death penalty. Iran is a dramatic example of “church-state union” that is oppressively theocratic.

In Jewish tradition, God deemed rule by autocrats to be problematic (see 1 Samuel: 8) but biblical kings arose and combined religious with civil functions. Jews had no nation-state of their own through much of their history. Modern Israel’s successful democracy practices religious freedom with certain privileges for Orthodox Judaism.
Christianity starts from Jesus’s clever and cryptic saying “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (included in three of the four Gospels). Scholars say that rather that spelling out which “things” are which, Jesus left it to individuals to apply the principle. But he did imply a certain distinction, if not “separation,” between the two realms. That concept was later developed in St. Augustine’s masterwork “The City of God” and Martin Luther’s idea of the “two kingdoms.”

Though born as an oppressed minority under Roman rule, Christianity eventually became heavily involved with government, often to its detriment. Matters changed fundamentally during the 17th Century. The Thirty Years War between Catholic and Protestant regimes (1618-1648) devastated Europe and roused cynicism toward the church. The English Civil War (1642-1651) had similar effects. While the Enlightenment fostered individualism and religious skepticism, demands for free conscience emanated from Protestant dissenters in Britain and its American colonies.

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WPost probes hot debate on the banks of River Jordan

I have crossed the Jordan River twice in my life and both times the experience was quite memorable. The river itself isn’t much to look at, but the social dynamics surrounding the location are fascinating.

The first trip was a singer in a choral music tour, done with the cooperation of the U.S. government, to perform “The Messiah” for cultural and political leaders in both Israel and Jordan. No big deal, right? However, this effort took place in late December, 1972. Look that up in the history of the Middle East. The second trip was linked to the 2000 pilgrimage that St. John Paul II made to the region. Look that one up, too.

Do the math and I am automatically going to be interested in the Washington Post news feature that ran under the following headline: “Pope picks one of dueling baptism sites in visit to Holy Land.”

This is a solid story and, first things first, I want to praise the wide variety of images and information contained in it. However, at the same time, I want to challenge the Post assumption that most readers would be most interested in the financial and political angles of this story, as opposed to the religions questions that it raises. You can get to both of those subjects from the material at the top of the report:

WEST BANK OF THE JORDAN RIVER – Christians believe that Jesus was immersed in the waters of the Jordan River by John the Baptist, who wore a cloak of camel’s hair and lived on locusts and honey in the desert wilderness.

But the Gospels are not precise about which side of the river the baptism took place on — the east bank or the west.

Although it might not matter much to a half-million annual visitors who come to the river for sightseeing or a renewal of faith, it matters very much to tourism officials in Israel and Jordan, who maintain dueling baptism sites, one smack-dab across from the other, with the shallow, narrow, muddy stream serving as international boundary.

Since many of those “visitors” can also be called “pilgrims,” as in believers making pilgrimages, it matters that Pope Francis is poised to become the latest major religious leader — more on that in a minute — to symbolically visit the Bethany Beyond the Jordan site on the Jordanian, or the east, side of the river.

Thinking hard news, it’s logical that the Post team jumped from the Pope Francis news hook straight into dollars, cents, tourism and politics. Viewed from this perspective, what we have here is Israeli tourism officials fighting to protect their market share in a tussle with Jordanian tourism officials.

I get that. I’ve seen that first hand, because the tourism battle is decades old. For starters, it’s easier — some say safer — to visit the Israeli side.

But is that the most important, the most interesting angle to take on this matter, from the viewpoint of the typical reader? I’m not convinced. I would ask: Why are most people going there? Trust me, this dispute is not about the scenery.

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The Atlantic finds new sect: Southern Baptist Convention

Maybe someone at The Atlantic was trying to be clever or just writing too fast. Or maybe its online article about the Southern Baptist Convention told a subtler story: a condescending attitude toward the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.

“Baptists, Just Without the Baptisms,” quips the headline, rather exaggerated but still arguable if you want to get readers’ attention. The included bar graph does show rates have been falling fairly steadily since 1999. The article also tells of failures to baptize most members between 12 and 29 years old.

But those of us who care about words found our eyes drawn elsewhere in the piece. First, the subhead:

A task force of Southern Baptist ministers reports its finding on the sect’s declining rate of dunkings, saying, “We have a spiritual problem.”

Then in the body of the story:

When the baptism numbers for 2012 were released last summer, the denomination’s national organization, the Southern Baptist Convention, put together a “task force” on the sect’s “evangelistic impact.”

A sect? You mean some small, aberrant group with strong leaders and opaque workings — weird at best, dangerous at worst? How does that word apply to an organization of nearly 16 million people in 50,000 congregations in every state — and a lot of other nations as well?

Think I’m making too much of a single word? Well, Boko Haram, the murderous terrorist group in Nigeria, often gets called a sect. So do Hasidic groups like Lev Tahor and Shuvu Banim, especially in non-Orthodox Jewish media.

Did The Atlantic team even look up the word? Because a few keystrokes yield some interesting definitions, including:

* “A group regarded as heretical or as deviating from a generally accepted religious tradition.”

* “A schismatic religious body characterized by an attitude of exclusivity in contrast to the more inclusive religious groups called denominations or churches.”

* “A Christian denomination characterized by insistence on strict qualifications for membership, as distinguished from the more inclusive groups called churches.”

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Baptists ‘unofficially’ changing doctrine on homosexuality?

Southern Baptist leaders are seeking a “softer approach on homosexuality,” reports National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered.”

While noting that “the country’s largest protestant (sic) group … still preaches that marriage can only be between one man and one woman,” NPR points to a recent, vaguely identified meeting of pastors to back up its headline:

The Southern Baptist Convention held a gathering of pastors at its Nashville headquarters in April. For an organization that has previously used opposition to gay marriage as a rallying point, statements here from church leaders, like Kevin Smith of Kentucky, shocked the auditorium of pastors into silence.

“If you spent 20 years and you’ve never said anything about divorce in the church culture, then shut up about gay marriage,” Smith said.

Pastor Jimmy Scroggins of Florida went even further.

“We’re all in agreement that the cultural war is over when it comes to homosexuality, especially when it comes to gay marriage,” Scroggins told the pastors.

A quick aside: As noted previously by GetReligion, Southern Baptists passed a resolution in 2010 on “The Scandal of Southern Baptist Divorce,” so Smith isn’t exactly the first Baptist to bring up that subject.

Another quick aside: Did all those “silenced” pastors lose their voices for as long as Zechariah? Otherwise, it would have been nice to hear their direct reaction to what was said.

But back to the main point: Hang on to your keyboards, tablets and smartphones and swallow any coffee or other hot liquids before considering this next broad statement of fact by NPR:

Officially, Southern Baptists aren’t backing down from their belief that homosexuality is sinful. Gays and lesbians are still barred from church membership without first repenting. But Scroggins says they’re sitting in his pews and shouldn’t be the butt of preacher humor. He calls that “redneck theology.”

Officially!?

Does that mean that “unofficially,” Southern Baptists are backing down from their belief that homosexuality in sinful? Seriously, NPR? This story certainly provides no evidence of that dramatic change in doctrine. (I have written about a similar effort in my own fellowship — Churches of Christ — that aims to change approach, not doctrine.)

If Southern Baptist pastors were to tout a more loving approach toward Christian men who struggle with viewing images of naked women online, would NPR write, “Officially, Southern Baptists aren’t backing down from their belief that pornography is sinful.” Or would the difference in tone and doctrine be clear?

Let’s keep reading:

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About that prophetic USA Today story grilling Mark Jackson

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It’s time for a quick trip into my very large folder of GetReligion guilt, that place where I put stories that I think deserve attention — once I get done with the news of the day. And then a day turns into a week and then a week into two weeks and so forth and so on.

So let’s flash back to the recent NBA series between the Los Angeles Clippers and coach Doc Rivers and the Golden State Warriors and their coach, The Rev. Mark Jackson. Yes, “the Rev.” That series led to a very interesting, some would say prophetic, USA Today story about a quiet, behind the scenes controversy in professional basketball. Here’s the top of the story:

Long before Doc Rivers found himself defending his Los Angeles Clippers players who were the unwelcome participants in team owner Donald Sterling’s racist comments all week, he was concerned about another sensitive subject.

Religion.

It was late 1999, the start of Rivers’ first season as coach of the Orlando Magic, and he saw a situation in the locker room that he felt needed to be addressed. As his players took part in the pre-game prayer that was part of their routine — with veteran point guard Darrell Armstrong handling the message like always, future New Orleans Pelicans coach Monty Williams serving as unofficial co-messenger and the entire team standing in a circle — Rivers noticed something he didn’t like.

“I looked up in one of the prayers, and Tariq (Abdul-Wahad) had his arms folded, and you could see that he was really uncomfortable with it,” Rivers … told USA TODAY Sports.

Rivers made the decision, with a Muslim believer on his team, to shut down the prayers, saying that his players should keep their religious devotions private. The very next paragraph was what caught my attention.

Rivers calls himself a “very religious” man, having grown up in the Second Baptist Church in Maywood, Ill., and praying on his knees every night in his home to this day. But he prefers to practice privately and is quick to note that he has attended church only for funerals the past 15 years.

Now, no matter how you look at it, that’s a very interesting paragraph full of mixed signals. Why has this strong believer stopped going to church? What was the big idea that the USA Today team was trying to communicate? And what did this have to do with the Golden State series?

Well maybe this is the connection:

This NBA season has been unprecedented when it comes to the blending of basketball and unresolved social issues — from Jason Collins becoming the first openly gay athlete to play in a major professional league to Royce White, who has dealt with mental illness, to the Sterling situation — there has been a widespread push for increased tolerance on all fronts. Yet the conversation about religion and how it’s best handled by coaches and players remains fluid.

With Rivers handling his work world one way and Warriors coach/ordained minister Mark Jackson another, there’s no better sign of the breadth of this debate than this particular series. After all, their growing rivalry reached this point in part because of an Oct. 31, 2013 controversy over pre-game chapel and the Clippers’ decision to break league-wide tradition and force the Warriors to pray on their own.

Now, both of these teams include players with very high profiles as Christian believers. That’s not the issue here. The very first time I read this story I wondered if there was some bigger religion-linked issue that the USA Today team was trying to address, if only by circling around and around it without being specific.

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Falwell’s 2014 Liberty: ‘Fundamentalist Baptist’ university?

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Here at GetReligion, the “F-word” always catches our attention.

I’m referring, of course, to fundamentalist.

It’s a loaded word that can carry a negative connotation when applied to religious groups or institutions.

The Associated Press Stylebook — “the journalist’s bible” — contains this entry:

fundamentalist: The word gained usage in an early 20th century fundamentalist-modernist controversy within Protestantism. In recent years, however, fundamentalist has to a large extent taken on pejorative connotations except when applied to groups that stress strict, literal interpretations of Scripture and separation from other Christians.

In general, do not use fundamentalist unless a group applies the word to itself.

That brings us to a Washington Post story this week on former Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell taking a part-time teaching job at Liberty University.

From that story:

McDonnell began the job this semester by giving a few lectures at the fundamentalist Baptist college founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell Sr., who died in 2007. He will resume the lectures in the fall, making six to eight appearances per semester, said Johnnie Moore, a senior vice president at the school.

Here’s the question — actually, two questions: Is Liberty fundamentalist? And is Liberty officially Baptist?

In an email thread among your inquiring-mind GetReligionistas, editor tmatt noted:

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